Sunday, October 31, 2004

Continuity Terrors

Here's a funny essay on continuity in TV shows and the perils of trying to maintain continuity when shows cross over with each other; using the guide to TV crossovers as a resource, it demonstrates that almost any show can be connected to St. Elsewhere in some way, meaning that almost every show is part of the dream of that kid in the last episode.

What that essay got me wondering is when, exactly, episode-to-episode continuity became part of television shows. I'm not talking about big stuff, like the fact that if Lucy has a baby one season she's going to have it next season (though, starting the tradition that would be continued by Murphy Brown and others, we didn't see the kid very much after he was born); I mean the idea of letting the events of one episode influence, or restrict, later events on the show: we can't do a flashback to our hero's bar-mitzvah, because last year he said he was raised Catholic. (Another writer suggests: "Let's make him a Jewish Catholic. Problem solved.) As I've said elsewhere, TV shows with continuing characters used to aspire to the status and style of anthology shows -- which were considered, since the Playhouse 90 days, to be the best TV had to offer -- and so making every episode totally self-contained was not just convenient, but a mark of pride: we're creating self-contained stories here, not some soap opera. To have inter-episode continuity in, say, Star Trek would have been regarded as an unacceptable descent into soapiness.

That's why, as I've also said elsewhere -- I'm recycling a lot of my pop-culture talking points today, it seems -- the idea of continuity and "story arcs" often started on shows that didn't have particularly high aspirations, like Dallas. And the first show to have a lot of "continuity" in the sense that the above essay talks about -- that is, having characters remember what happened last week and letting that influence their actions -- may have been the gleefully lowbrow The Beverly Hillbillies. Paul Henning wrote or co-wrote every episode, and often he didn't really bother to create an ending for the episode; instead he'd just let the story peter out, and pick things up in the next episode. The upshot was that The Beverly Hillbillies, especially in the first couple of seasons, may have been the first true "arc" show. And, in general, there used to be more continuity on sitcoms than there was on dramas. Pre-Dallas dramas tended to stick to the idea of being anthology shows that happened to have continuing characters; but sitcoms in the '60s and '70s were more inclined to establish connections between the episodes. One of the writers of WKRP in Cincinnati kept a notebook in which he'd write down every point that was mentioned about a character -- what kind of car he or she drove, where he or she came from, etc. -- and he'd then refer to these points at story meetings, in order to keep them straight. He even wrote an entire episode to explain away various continuity discrepancies regarding one of the characters (Venus, who at various times was said to be a schoolteacher, a successful DJ, and a fugitive from justice). As dramas got more continuity-heavy, it seems, sitcoms got less so.

As to what I think of "continuity," I have to say that I am not turned off when a show makes a dreaded Continuity Error (tm). These things are always going to happen. Still, it is fun when a show tries to keep a character's background consistent, or incorporates references to earlier episodes, because it does increase the sense that you're watching people who could be real, and who do what real people do -- in this case, talk about things that previously happened to them.

The Way We Wrote Then

Having said mean things about Anthony Trollope in two previous posts, I may have given the impression that I don't like his work. But actually, I do. The Way We Live Now, which I only recently finished reading (it's a long damn thing), is a terrific novel, and it benefits, oddly, from the fact that there are almost no "good guys" in the book (the character who was supposed to be the chief Good Guy, the stolidly honest country squire Roger Carbury, wound up getting relegated to the status of a minor character) is a plus, because the portrayal of flawed or corrupt characters shows off Trollope's greatest strength: the ability to understand characters on their own terms, and to convey the way people see themselves. Almost every character in The Way We Live Now gets one of those extended passages where the narrator tells us what they're thinking and how they view the situation they're in. Melmotte is a scoundrel and a crook, and Trollope doesn't hesitate to tell us so repeatedly, but he also gives Melmotte something of an inner life, feelings, regrets; Trollope isn't non-judgmental, but he doesn't deny the humanity of his characters. Dickens wouldn't do this for his own proto-Ken-Lay characters, for Merdle or Veneering. And even today, authors are more accustomed to portray the thoughts of a character, rather than organizing or analyzing them; after Satan invented the Interior Monologue, it became possible to portray the inner life of a character in a more ambiguous way: here's what my character thinks, make of it what you will. Trollope is more of an analyst, writing a mini-essay on the feelings and thoughts of a character.

The other thing worth mentioning about The Way We Live Now is that it wound up almost completely different from the story Trollope set out to write; his main characters were supposed to be Lady Carbury, the middle-aged coquette, and the previously-mentioned Roger, who loves Lady Carbury's daughter Hetta (who loves Roger's friend Paul). By the midpoint of the novel, Lady Carbury has all but disappeared, as has Hetta, and Roger doesn't have much to do but grumble about the behavior of various other characters. The real stars of the book became Melmotte and his daughter Marie, and the ostensible main story -- the Roger/Hetta/Paul triangle, which Trollope admitted was the worst thing in the novel -- doesn't really come into focus until after Melmotte dies. But what this change in focus means is that after Melmotte is gone, there's over a hundred pages left in which very little of interest happens: most of what remains consists of just wrapping up all the stories, including the ones that the author more or less abandoned when he realized that Melmotte's story was more interesting.

This brings up something I've noticed in a lot of big 19th century novels, and particularly English novels: the part that we now tend to consider the most important part of the story, the ending, is probably the least important part of a novel of this era. The last installment of a Dickens or Trollope novel -- the "double number" that was half again as long as a regular installment -- often has no story interest to speak of, boiling down instead to a series of vignettes wrapping up each story with a marriage or a death or some character's decision to go abroad. In a time when there wasn't a broad range of acceptable ways to end a character's story (as the old saying goes, the only real endings to a story are marriage and death), there wasn't much point in trying to surprise the reader, or to inject artificial excitement into this wrapping-up operation. I suppose I find this interesting because we're now so used to thinking of the ending as the part that makes or breaks the story; hence all the fights over the endings of movies, the obsessive testing and changing of endings, the complaints about stories that end too happily or too sadly. For a writer like Trollope, the ending isn't that important; it's something that has to be written up, but it's not necessarily supposed to answer all the questions raised in the story, or to be the last word on what the novel is saying.

The other, related thing about The Way We Live Now and Victorian novels in general (and this is one of the last of the old-style Victorian novels: loosely-structured, published in monthly installments, etc.) is that they prove that you can have an effective novel where the hero and heroine are of little or no interest. I guess this started with the pre-Victorian Sir Walter Scott, but the English novels of the 19th century are notorious for revolving around heroes and heroines who aren't very interesting and don't even necessarily appear that much. In The Way We Live Now the "heroine" is presumably supposed to be Hetta Carbury, a character so dull that even Trollope can't give her any interesting thoughts, and the "hero" is either Roger (a stick) or Paul (another of Trollope's well-meaning ex-playboys who's too weak-willed to disentangle himself from an old relationship). Trollope, as I said, pretty much abandons these Good Guys for long stretches of the novel -- yet the novel doesn't fall apart. The odd thing, though, is that in a modern novel, Roger, with his hints of religious doubt (originally supposed to be a major plot thread, but abandoned by Trollope), and Paul, a guy trying to dump an old flame without hurting her feelings, would work very well as lead characters. A modern novelist would focus more on showing events from a single character's point of view, and a character like Paul might take on more importance accordingly.

Friday, October 29, 2004

The French Touch is Much Too Much

I've been watching the new DVD of Berlioz's Les Troyens (The Trojans), from a Paris production conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. It's a good performance; Berlioz's music works extremely well on period instruments (given his interest in new and unusual orchestral sonorities, it helps to have the instruments he was writing for), the cast is good. The production is of the type that compensates for apparent budget and stage-space limitations with various minimalistic gimmicks: mirrors, lighting tricks, costumes from unspecified periods. But it's a good, involving production with blessedly few moments of outright Eurotrashiness. (One such moment comes at the end of act 2, where the murderous, rapine Greek soldiers burst in... dressed in combat fatigues and carrying machine guns. See, the rampaging, treacherous despoiling Greeks are really -- Americans! get it?) I'd prefer to see an outright spectacular grand-opera production in the style of 19th century Grand Opera, but this is a very worthwhile DVD, probably more satisfying overall than most of the audio recordings of this opera.

While The Trojans was written, as I said, in the form of a 19th century French Grand opera, with all the things that entails -- five acts; spectacular moments like the mass suicide of the Trojan women and the Royal Hunt and Storm; ballets; extensive use of the chorus; a heroic tenor role -- it wasn't actually performed as such in Berlioz's lifetime. The most common approach to the work, in the 19th century up to the late 20th century when it finally started to get into the repertoire, was to split it up and perform it as separate works: the first two acts as a self-contained work about the fall of Troy, and the last three acts as an opera about Dido and Aeneas. I actually see the point of this, and wonder if it might be a good approach to take even today; the work is very long, but more than that, there's a stylistic disconnect between the two halves. The first part, focusing on Cassandra, is almost unrelievedly gloomy and grim; it fits the subject, but it doesn't put the audience in a frame of mind to stay the full five hours or whatever. The Carthage section has more variety; this is where the Shakespearean influences start to become apparent in Berlioz's libretto, resulting in great moments like the duet for two of Aeneas's men, who scoff at all this business about destiny and leaving a nice place like Carthage just to go to Italy. Performing those three acts as a self-contained work makes a certain amount of sense, though obviously there are connections, thematic and musical, between the two halves of the work (the ultimate irony of the piece is that, in fulfilling his destiny to go to Rome and revive the destroyed culture of Troy, Aeneas has helped to destroy the culture of Carthage, converting its people from a civilized, cultured people into bloodthirsty, vengeful warmongers like the Greeks in the Troy sequence). And the whole work is bound together by the strangely "neoclassical" approach that Berlioz takes; the model, dramatic and musical, is 18th century French opera, and in particular the solemn, serious-minded mythological operas of Gluck, like Ipheginie en Tauride.

One notable thing about French Grand Opera is that the three 19th century grand operas that are generally regarded as the greatest, Rossini's William Tell, Verdi's Don Carlos, and Berlioz's The Trojans, were all failures to varying degrees. Tell came the closest to being a hit, but it was considered too big, too serious, too ambitious, and not spectacular enough to be a hit with the audience, as opposed to the critics. (The story goes that the Opera house started performing only the second act of Tell; when told about this, Rossini replied "What, the whole second act?") And even now, none of those three operas can claim to be among the most popular of all time, not compared to non-French operas that are influenced by French Grand Opera without fully being part of that form, operas like Aida and Tannhauser. Among the true Grand Operas that were big hits in their time, Halevy's La Juive and Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots get revived sometimes, and there are still diehard fans of the form, like Tom Kaufman. But if this is the spot for me to say that Grand Opera deserves a re-evaluation, I don't really think I can do it; I love a lot of French opera -- Massenet, Bizet, Offenbach, Gounod -- but the big, blockbuster grand operas tend to leave me cold, even when written by a composer I like (I love Massenet's small-scale works, but his attempts at grand opera, like Herodias and The Cid, just have too many dead spots and bombastic musical gimmicks).

But then, it's unfair to evaluate a lot of Grand Opera by the music alone, or even the music and the text alone. Composers like Meyerbeer and librettists like Eugene Scribe always calculated their work in terms of the effect it would make not only in the theatre in general, but in the context of a specific production at a specific opera house (the Paris Opera). The Trojans was something Berlioz wrote and then tried to get produced; William Tell is a work of pure musical integrity, almost separate from the circumstances of production; but Meyerbeer's The Huguenots or Robert the Devil hardly exist apart from the way they were produced. As Ethan Mordden puts it in The Splendid Art of Opera:

Compared to Rossini's masterpiece [William Tell], Robert does look overblown and nugatory, a two-ton frisbee. Meyerbeer's was an eclectic's touch. The Opera has installed an organ? Let's have a church scene. The technical staff has found another way to deploy gas light to create a mist in the air? We can use that in the ruined cloister scene. There's a tournament in the second act? We can slip another ballet in there, as a kind of appetizer for the big one in the third act -- and there, as chief defrocked nun, let's get the formidable Marie Taglioni. The tone of that act is a little too macabre, though -- let's make the second tenor a comic character, so he can sing a funny duet with the demon; that'll be sure to go over.

But that description touches on the facet of French Grand Opera that is at once its great strength and weakness: the Grand Opera was the true Gesamkunstwerk, a total work of art in which every aspect of the production -- music, text, direction, sets, choreography, lighting -- works toward the same end and contributes to its overall effect. Wagner invented the term Gesamkunstwerk to describe his own operas, and he certainly claimed that he was working toward a total theatre experience. But in practice, he was writing operas without any real reference to what could be done in the theatre; he wasn't able to have Rheinmaidens who could convincingly sing and "swim" at the same time, nor a dragon that looked genuinely scary. Wagner didn't even write the vocal parts with any particular reference to what could be done by real-world performers, with the result that he wrote tenor parts that no tenor in his time (and no one ever, perhaps, except Lauritz Melchior) could sing all the way through without burning out his voice by the third act. Wagner talked aboout total theatre, but really the totality of what he envisioned existed only in his mind, not in the theatre.

It was in Paris that opera was truly a full-fledged theatre experience where all the elements worked together to the same end. It was an end that Wagner scorned -- cheap sensationalism and bourgeois morality wrapped up in a package of hummable tunes -- but, like a Hollywood blockbuster of the present day, a Meyerbeer/Scribe opera used all the best available theatrical devices, including cutting-edge special effects, to make the finished product something more than just music and singing. Like a '30s musical comedy, the result doesn't necessarily look like much once you take away the original production and the original performers, but then, it wasn't meant to. And to give Robert the Devil his due, what Meyerbeer had is what Berlioz never had: a sense of exactly how his music would work in a theatrical context and how to hook an audience so completely that they'll stay with you for five hours. That's why Meyerbeer's operas were hits in a way that The Trojans never really has been -- and in a truly great production with great singers and special effects, I suspect many operagoers would enjoy those operas more than Les Troyens, even while acknowledging that Les Troyens is the greater work of art.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

I Lied

Another thing you can get away with on a blog is saying that something will happen, which does not subsequently happen. This could never happen in print journalism.

I still haven't had time to write anything new for this blog. I'll try to get a full-fledged post up by tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004


...For the lack of new posts; sometimes the site wasn't operational, and sometimes I wasn't operational. New stuff (about old stuff, that is) tomorrow.

Monday, October 25, 2004

More Movies, More!

Robert Harris, the movie restoration expert, has a new interview with George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video, which now owns approximately 99% of all movies ever made. Feltenstein, who has helped turn WB into probably the best studio for classic movies on DVD, has a lot of interesting things to say about restoring and releasing older movies. And on page 2 he finally gets around to the big question, namely, what's coming next year. Fortunately he mentions A Face in the Crowd as a title that's in the works, so he's cool.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Bad Sitcoms With Good Writing

Have you ever noticed that many TV critics are really bad at evaluating sitcoms? I'm not just talking about problems with recognizing a good sitcom when they see one -- to be fair, most of the great sitcoms have been recognized as such by the critics -- but about the inability of a lot of TV critics to give an accurate description of a sitcom's style. A critic can usually tell you how one cop show differs from another, or how this autopsy-fest adopts a different approach from that autopsy show. But when it comes to the style of a sitcom, critics tend to have trouble looking past the basic setup; if a show is shot before a live audience, it will tend to be lumped in with all other shows filmed before a live audience, even if it doesn't have much in common with them.

For example, I recently read something about Arrested Development (a very funny show, but through no fault of it's own it's become this year's sitcom-for-people-who-hate-sitcoms) which contrasted it with the style of live-audience shows like "Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, and Seinfeld." But the only real reason for lumping Raymond in with those other two shows, stylistically, is that they all use the live-audience setup. "Raymond" is actually a reaction to the Seinfeld/Friends style of fast-paced storytelling, lots of plots, etc; the creators of "Raymond" returned to the '70s, All in the Family style of having few sets, less frantic pacing, and avoiding "B" stories, instead taking a simple story idea and having all the characters discuss and argue over it. In many ways "Arrested Development" is far closer to "Seinfeld" or "Friends" than "Raymond" is, because AD adopts the basic formulas of the "Seinfeld" model (have many plots in one episode, use short scenes rather than long ones, keep the pace fast at all costs). I'd also argue that "Arrested Development"'s basic style of humor probably has more in common with a live-audience show like "NewsRadio" than most sitcoms shot without a live audience, which tend to be slower, not faster than the studio-audience shows. The live-audience sitcom is an outgrowth of the snappy Broadway comedy of the '30s to the '50s, the kind of fast-paced play writing that died on Broadway but emigrated to Hollywood; the single-camera show, like Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show, has more in common with film comedy, which tends to space out its big jokes more than the rat-a-tat, audience-obsessed rhythm of stage comedy.

This points up the biggest problem with the way critics tend to evaluate sitcoms: they tend to evaluate by form, not substance or even style. A good example of this is the acclaim for Curb Your Enthusiasm. This is a funny show, but it commits all the sins that people say they're sick of in conventional sitcoms: characters who never develop; plots involving problems that could be solved in two minutes if the lead character wasn't an idiot; repetitive storylines. The show has become a sitcom for people who hate sitcoms, but largely, I think, on the basis of its unconventional form (semi-improvised) and non-network subject-matter; but really, in terms of substance it's quite close to one of those '60s sitcoms that did the same plot every week.

Which brings me to the point of the title: a lot of times, I find that critics don't make distinctions between sitcoms that are well-written and sitcoms that are not. Instead they often evaluate sitcoms by the basic form, or the basic premise, and assume based on that that the writing is bad. Conversely, once a show is established as quirky or sophisticated or something above the conventional sitcom, it can get a pass on its writing even if it's not all that good. The Simpsons got praised for its brilliant writing even when, as has often happened in the last six or seven years, the scripts have fallen down on many of the basics of characterization and story structure, and settled into one of those accursed sitcom-writer ruts where all the characters talk the same (have you noticed, in recent episodes, that Marge, Bart, Lisa and many of the rest of the characters make interchangeable one-line jokes that could have come from anybody?). But that's better than the shows that never had particularly good writing to begin with, but got written about as though they did. Usually these are the shows that have some kind of groundbreaking subject or quirky approach, anything to endear themselves to the critics who aren't interested in conventional sitcoms: Will and Grace and Sex and the City are recent examples of acclaimed shows with rather dreary writing.

Because critics tend to judge a sitcom based on how conventional its form is, this means that a sitcom with a reputation as being "bad" can often have better writing than a sitcom that is considered "good." I think I've already mentioned "Who's the Boss?" as the arch-example of the "bad" sitcom with good writing. As an ABC family sitcom revolving around a second banana from "Taxi," and with most of the stories revolving around ultra-conventional setups, it could never get a good critical reputation. But the writing, supervised by MTM veterans Blake Hunter and Martin Cohan, was quite good: the sort of well-crafted comedy that gets laughs not from one-liners (the lines look like nothing on the page, so I won't quote any) but from characterization and character interaction. The writing was so solid that they were able to do a successful British remake of the show, "The Upper Hand," that used the scripts from the original version, with the American references Anglicized but everything else the same. I wouldn't call "Who's the Boss?" a favorite sitcom of mine, but I think it was heavily underrated because of its form and look; it was, overall, a better-written show than "The Cosby Show" (which was well-written for its first season but very hit-and-miss for the rest of its run). Other shows that come to mind as being "bad" sitcoms with good, solid, character-specific, smart writing: "Boy Meets World," some seasons of "Growing Pains," the first two seasons of "The Beverly Hillbillies" (Paul Henning was a brilliant comedy writer), "Alf," and a bunch of others that even I don't have the nerve to admit to liking.

I'm not saying these shows are all-time classics. But I do think that they had better, smarter, tighter writing than a lot of the officially-approved, "quality" sitcoms of their respective eras. And when it comes to a show that isn't supposed to be a "quality" sitcom, I'm always impressed by good writing, since it demonstrates (from my outsider's point of view, anyway) that the writers sort of went the extra mile: a show like that can be a hit if it's as badly-written as "Full House," and the critics don't often acknowledge the difference between the writing quality of "Full House" and that of "Who's the Boss?" so it's kind of nice that the writers found a way to do some good work anyway. Of course, some shows are so misbegotten that it doesn't matter who's writing; "Mr. Belvedere" had an extremely strong creative team (mostly veterans of "Barney Miller," of all things), but it wasn't well-written. Or at least, the cast and characters were so repellent that it would not have been possible to build good scripts around them. But, again, you can say the same thing about a lot of quality, for-people-who-hate-sitcoms shows too.

By the way, I should be giving more specific examples of the kind of criticism I'm complaining about, but then this isn't real journalism, so you'll have to forgive me for my breach of non-journalistic protocol.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Pfft! Blue Ribbon

Cartoon Brew offers some screenshots from the upcoming Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 2, including title cards from several cartoons that have had their original opening titles restored. Like most studios, Warner Brothers periodically reissued their old cartoons; but when they did so, they removed the opening titles and music and substituted a generic opening sequence with just the title, no credits, and only the "Merrie Melodies" theme music. (The only cartoons that didn't usually get this treatment on reissue were Bugs Bunny cartoons, which were usually reissued intact and therefore survive with complete credits and music.) Four cartoons on the new DVD have been restored with their original titles, but several others remain credits-less, because WB (like most studios) cut the new titles into the original negatives upon reissue.

This was the "Blue Ribbon" series, so called because the sequence contained a blue ribbon and a statue that looked sort of like, but wasn't, an Oscar. I believe this was done in response to studios like MGM, whose reissues of Oscar-winning cartoons would revise the title sequences to boast of the award win. At the time they started reissuing cartoons, WB had no Academy Awards for best short cartoon (undeservedly, I think most of us would agree; the Academy didn't seem to acknowledge the existence of any cartoon studio outside of Disney and MGM), so they came up with this "Blue Ribbon" thing to make it look like they were reissuing award-winners. As for the removal of the credits, I've heard it speculated that that might have been part of WB's policy of not crediting artists who had left the studio (e.g. after Bob Clampett left, the cartoons he was working on at the time of his departure were released without a director credit). The policy finally changed around 1956, and the "Blue Ribbon" reissues after that (of cartoons dating from 1949 onwards) had full opening titles and music.

Fortunately the four restored-credits cartoons (all the cartoons are "restored" from the original negatives, but those are the four that will have credit sequences we haven't seen before) on the new set are all genuine classics: Tex Avery's "I Love To Singa," Bob Clampett's "Baby Bottleneck" and "Book Revue," and Friz Freleng's "Back Alley Oproar." A couple of other cartoons, the edu-toon "Old Glory" and Frank Tashlin's "Have You Got Any Castles," remain Blue Ribbon but have some material restored that was cut from the reissue prints.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Crossover Myth

It seems like every year Opera News has an article or an editorial on opera singers singing "popular" music. The current issue has one such article, by Matthew Gurewitsch, plus an editorial that makes the usual points: why shouldn't opera singers cross over, why are you all such snobs, wasn't Eileen Farrell great.

The thing I don't usually see addressed in these articles and editorials is the fact that there's another type of "crossover" singing besides the one that Gurewitsch writes about. He's mostly writing about opera singers who sing popular music or record a few show tunes. But there's also a longish history of opera and classical singers actually performing in full-fledged forms of popular entertainment, especially Broadway musicals.

If you listen to a Broadway cast album from the '50s, one thing you might notice is how many trained voices there are – not "musical theatre" trained, but classically trained, with baritone, tenor and soprano voices that were produced just like operatic voices. Most Broadway shows before the '60s did not have microphones; singers were expected to project to the whole theatre. That's why Broadway orchestrators tended to thin out the orchestration when people were singing, and use the brass only to punctuate the sung lines: there was no amplification, so it was essential to make sure that the singers weren't drowned out by the orchestra. Many Broadway shows included singers who also performed in operas and oratorios, singers such as the New York City Opera's John Reardon (who introduced "Make Someone Happy" in DO RE MI), Patricia Neway, the original Magda Sorel in Menotti's THE CONSUL (and the Mother Abbess in the original production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC), and Carol Brice, possessor of a great contralto voice, who recorded El Amor Brujo with Fritz Reiner but is probably best known for her roles in musicals like The Grass Harp (where she introduced one of that show's many cult-classic songs, "If There's Love Enough"). Fifty years ago, the term "crossover" was almost irrelevant: if you were a singing actor working in New York, you went where the work was. It was considered "crossing over" if an operatic star, like Ezio Pinza, did a Broadway show. But there have never been all that many stars in the opera world; mostly there are singers, and in Broadway's Golden Age (tm), Broadway shows tended to need a lot of good, trained, "legit" singers.

As it happens, The Grass Harp in 1971 spelled the end of that kind of singing in Broadway theatres, because it was the last show with no microphones. Amplification eliminates the need for voices that can project on their own, and, indeed, a voice like Brice's would probably not come off well through a modern theatre sound system. It's only fairly recently that "musical-theatre" has become a style of singing in and of itself, requiring specialized training. But I would say that the style of good classical singing is more suited to the great musical theatre songs than the whiny, microphone-centric singing that today's musical-theatre training encourages. I never took a course in musical-theatre singing, but I used to go to shows given by people who did. A singing teacher would sit at the piano while her pupils came out on stage and demonstrated their voices in numbers from the "HACKNEYED BROADWAY SONGS EVEN YOUR KIDS WILL HAVE HEARD OF" songbook. I admired said voices, and their ability to get through the lyrics of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" without embarrassment. What I didn't like was the stuff that their teachers had told them to do. These young women, who were obviously capable of singing full-out, would instead sing in a kind of ear-piercing head voice that had little to do with the kind of voices that these songs were written for; a Richard Rodgers or Cole Porter would usually be writing for a legit soprano, or an impossible-to-categorize singer like Ethel Merman, but not singers who sang in a tone that gave you the feeling that, if they went any higher, only dogs would be able to hear them. (Please note that I'm not knocking the students I heard; just the way they had been trained to sing.)

If you want to worry about what's happened to musical theatre singing in the last 50 years (and who doesn't enjoy worrying?), listen to the "Conversation Piece" number from WONDERFUL TOWN. At the climax of the number, composer Leonard Bernstein writes a little coloratura obbligato for the character of Eileen, a funny bit of operatic spoofery that looks forward to "Glitter and Be Gay" in CANDIDE. On the original cast recording, Edie Adams -- a classically trained singer, though she didn't always let on -- handles the coloratura with ease; Jacquelyn McKeever on the TV cast recording (from 1958) has more trouble with it, but gets through it all right. Recent Eileens tend to have serious trouble with this bit, kind of faking their way through it and requiring a slow tempo even to do that much (case in point: Rebecca Luker on the 1998 two-disc studio recording on the JAY label). Broadway musicals need good legit singers, but there are getting to be fewer and fewer who can do it, because the art of musical-theatre singing often seems to be thought of as something separate from classical singing, instead of an extention of it.

This is one reason why I've never understood the praise for Eileen Farrell's "popular" singing. Farrell had a wonderful soprano voice. So what does she do when she sings Cole Porter? She does her damndest to disguise her wonderful soprano voice, instead using a chesty, piercing voice that makes her sound like just another pop singer with a larger-than-usual voice. When I hear Farrell singing "In the Still of the Night" as though she were a louder, heavier Margaret Whiting, I wish she'd just cut it out and be herself -- especially since Porter wrote "In the Still of the Night" for a legit singing voice, that of Nelson Eddy. This is, to an extent, my complaint about a lot of opera singers who sing "crossover," that they feel a need to try and be jazzy and cool and all the other things that have little to do with a Rodgers and Hammerstein song. Of course, if an opera singer decides to just be himself or herself in singing musical-comedy songs, that's no guarantee of a good rendition -- but that's in part because he or she may simply display the same flaws as in his or her operatic work. Thomas Hampson, on his various EMI recordings of show music, is rather stiff and mannered -- but those problems are there in a lot of his operatic and art-song singing, too.

I don't really have a good conclusion for this post, so I'll close instead with my favorite anecdote about the legit singing style on Broadway: for the musical The Pajama Game, the producers hired a young pop songwriting team, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, with no Broadway experience. Deciding that leading man John Raitt (not precisely an operatic singer, but certainly a "legit" Broadway singer) was too square, they tried to teach him to sing their songs off the beat, pull the tempo around, depart from the written notes, just the way pop singers do. Raitt told the songwriters he wouldn't sing off the beat, that Richard Rodgers had taught him that a theatre song works better if you sing it "straight." I would have to agree.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

What's All this Curse Business?

There's this baseball game coming on tonight -- you might have heard of it -- involving these two American League teams with very high payrolls.

The only thing I have to say about this before it starts (and while watching the other extra-inning nailbiter in that other championship series) is this: when did everyone start talking about the Red Sox's "curse," the "Curse of the Bambino," and so on? I did a Nexis search on October 1986, that most infamous of Octobers, for the terms "'Red Sox' and curse and 'Babe Ruth'." I found only four articles from that whole month that matched, and the articles talked about the "curse" as more of an in-joke among the Red Sox, a half-superstitious half-joking explanation of why the franchise hadn't won a World Series since 1918. Now, there are four articles every hour that talk about the curse, and it's routinely talked about by people who aren't particularly interested in baseball, let alone baseball history. When did this little joke among baseball buffs and Red Sox die-hards pass into the cultural mainstream? Is this another thing that came about when all those Harvard grads started writing for TV?

Also, one thing about the "curse" story that doesn't make sense to me: the story is that Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth in 1918 in order to finance the musical production No, No, Nanette. But, in fact, No, No, Nanette didn't get produced until 1922 (and it didn't make it to Broadway until 1925, after a long run as a touring show), and in those days it didn't take four years to produce a stage show. If Frazee sold Ruth to finance a stage play, it was probably My Lady Friends, the 1919 play upon which Nanette was based. So in other words, Frazee sold Babe Ruth and we didn't even get "Tea For Two" out of it.

Edit: I have just been reminded that Ruth was not sold in 1918, but in late 1919 or early 1920. Why is it that I di not remember that Ruth was with the Red Sox in 1919, but I did remember that he hit a then-record 29 home runs that year? Because my mind is so cluttered with statistics, there's no room for actual non-numerical facts. Shame on me. Shame.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Songs For a Bleak Mood

What are good songs to listen to when you're in a bad mood and want to be confirmed in your conviction that life sucks (as opposed to the kind of semi-bad mood where you just need a song to cheer you up)? The traditional choice is the torch song, but even the bleakest torch songs are primarily about one problem: lack of love. "Angel Eyes" may be a magnificently depressing song, but still, it implies that if the singer's Angel Eyes were here, he wouldn't be depressed. That's not enough for the full-fledged misery junkie.

I think my nomination for most depressing song of all time -- at least, the most depressing great song -- is Rodgers and Hart's "A Ship Without a Sail." While technically a torch song, Hart's lyrics go beyond the usual images of unrequited love, to the point that the singer seems to be wishing not necessarily for love, but just for anybody, anything to make his/her life matter again:


I don't know what day it is
Or if it's dark or fair.
Somehow that's just the way it is
And I don't really care.
I go to this or that place,
I seem alive and well.
My head is just a hat place,
My breast an empty shell,
And I've a faded dream to sell.


All alone, all at sea!
Why does nobody care for me?
When there's no hand to hold my hand,
Why is my heart so frail,
Like a ship without a sail?
Out on the ocean
Sailors can use a chart.
I'm on the ocean
Guided by just a lonely heart.
Still alone, still at sea!
Still there's no one to care for me!
When there's no love to hold your love,
Life is a loveless tale
For a ship without a sail.

If you need a self-pity fix, that is the song to go for. Frederica Von Stade's recording has the original orchestrations and the right spirit for this kind of song (e.g. sung "legit," rather than as a breathy torch song).

Another option when you're in a self-pitying mood is to go for a song that states that our personal problems don't matter because we're all doomed anyway. Surprisingly there are few songs that have become upbeat uptempo hits with a theme like that. But there's always the first refrain of "We Don't Matter at All" from It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams:

What are we? A pair of puny primates
On a very tiny planet
In a minor galaxy!
We don't matter at all.
One big boom! and it'll all be over,
Or perhaps the smog will finish
Our short, dull history.
We don't matter at all.
Oh sure, every hundred years or so
We come up with a Gandhi or a Michelangelo.
Hooray! Ain't that dandy, we say,
Then we muck things up in the same destructive way.
So, here you are, an earnest girl reporter
And you think you're something special
In this vast eternity.
Baby, you and I,
We're just about as special as a walnut or a fly!
We don't matter at all.
We don't matter at all.
We don't really matter at all.

However, this refrain (sung by a research scientist character who has nothing to do with the Superman comics) is followed by an upbeat refrain for Lois Lane ("Wrong approach!/To me I'm much more special than a walnut or a roach!"), which kind of kills the mood. So for full-fledged bleak despair, Noel Coward provided the answer in "There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner," written for a revue in the '50s and soon adopted by Coward as a staple of his cabaret act, the great anthem for the depressed post-WWII, bomb-dreading, psychiatrist-seeing world. Incidentally, "pecker" doesn't mean what it means now; it's derived from the expression "keep your pecker up," and "pecker" means nose. That's why productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial By Jury keep trying to find substitutes for the line "Be firm, be firm, my pecker." Anyway:

Refrain 1
There are bad times just around the corner,
There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky
And it's no good whining
About a silver lining
For we know from experience that they won't roll by.
With a scowl and a frown
We'll keep our peckers down
And prepare for depression and doom and dread,
We're going to unpack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead.

Refrain 4
There are bad times just around the corner,
We can all look forward to despair,
It's as clear as crystal
From Bridlington to Bristol
That we can't save democracy and we don't much care
If the Reds and the Pinks
Believe that England stinks
And that world revolution is bound to spread,
We'd better all learn the lyrics of the old 'Red Flag'
And wait until we drop down dead.
A likely story
Land of Hope and Glory,
Wait until we drop down dead.

And since you asked, actually, I'm in a pretty good mood today.

Tom & Jerry & Cuts and Corrections

One more note about the Tom and Jerry DVD set I wrote about below: turns out that three of the cartoons in the set are in cut versions that eliminate "blackface" gags (you know, the kind where an explosion turns Tom into a feline equivalent of Al Jolson): "The Milky Waif," "The Little Orphan," and "The Truce Hurts." All three of those cartoons are on the first disc of the set.

According to a post on the Golden Age Cartoons forum, because WB advertised this set as "uncut," they're going to go back and create a new version of the first disc with those three cartoons uncut, and you can then exchange your "censored" copy for an "uncensored" copy. According to the post, Jerry Beck will announce details on his site within the next few days.

As to how this happened, these cartoons and most of the others in the set were originally released on some cheap kids' DVDs a few years ago, and the above-mentioned cartoons were censored for the DVD releases. It seems that for the new set, WB mostly just used the DVD masterings they'd prepared before -- and somebody didn't realize or care that those three cartoons had been cut. Hopefully this will get fixed.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Happy Belated Birthday, Plum

Can't believe I forgot to mention P.G. Wodehouse's birthday yesterday. On that occasion, Outer Life reviewed Wodehouse's worst Jeeves novel, Ring For Jeeves. This novel has a convoluted history. Wodehouse and his old friend and collaborator Guy Bolton wrote a Jeeves stage play in 1952, featuring Jeeves but not Bertie Wooster. This kind of change wasn't unusual when Wodehouse adapted his characters for the stage; he did a stage play based on one of his best books, Leave it to Smith, where all the Blandings characters -- Lord Emsworth, Lady Constance, and the rest -- were changed to new characters.

The Jeeves play closed during tryouts, and Wodehouse, apparently unable to take the hint that Jeeves without Bertie just doesn't work, turned the play into a novel. Again, this wasn't a first for Wodehouse. His funny and somewhat atypical novel The Small Bachelor (one of the few Wodheouse novels where all the main characters are Americans) was based on a musical he wrote with Bolton and Jerome Kern, Oh, Lady! Lady! That was the musical for which Wodehouse and Kern wrote the song "Bill," by the way, which got cut but resurfaced in a revised version in Kern's Show Boat. A subplot in Wodehouse's Bill the Conqueror is based on a plot thread from another Bolton/Wodehouse/Kern musical, Sitting Pretty. The most elaborate bit of recycling Wodehouse did: in the late '40s, he published a novel called Spring Fever, about an impecunious Lord who tries to steal a valuable book of stamps from his wealthy gorgon of a daughter. Wodehouse then turned this novel into a play, in the process of which he added many new characters, changed the setting, changed what the main character was trying to steal, and basically wound up with something that had the same basic plot but was different in all other respects. The play didn't get produced, so Wodehouse rewrote the play as a novel, The Old Reliable (1951) -- which means that within the space of a few years he'd published two novels with the same plot.

Bolton and Wodehouse were sort of joined at the hip, stylistically; in the stuff they collaborated on, like the musicals and the delightful memoir of their Broadway years, Bring on the Girls, it's often hard to tell who wrote what line of dialogue, though whenever you hear a crazy simile or a line about someone eating broken bottles, you can pretty much bet that that's a Wodehouse line. A line that occurs in a Bolton script will sometimes turn up in a Wodehouse story; compare this line from Girl Crazy, a Broadway musical co-written by Bolton:

GIEBER: I'm going to fly.
DANNY: You mean flee.
GIEBER: This is no time to talk insects.

With this exchchange from the Wodehouse story "The Romance of a Bulb-Squeezer":

"My daughter helping the foe of her family to fly --"
"Flee, father," corrected the girl, faintly.
"Flea or fly -- this is no time for arguing about insects.

The Wodehouse story came first, but the joke had been used before; part of the fun of Wodehouse is that as a product of the musical-comedy culture of the early part of the 20th century, he's not afraid of corny old jokes, puns, homilies, all the stuff that was common in old musical comedies and that later generations grew accustomed to sneering at, even though it's theatrically effective. What Wodehouse did in his novels was to overlay that kind of pleasantly corny musical-comedy storytelling with a greater density of language, and more complicated plot construction, than you could have in a Broadway musical -- and that's the Wodehouse style, simple stories made complicated, simple jokes made elaborate.

Tom and Jerry on DVD

I wish I were a bigger fan of Tom and Jerry. Watching the new DVD Collection of 40 of their '40s and '50s cartoons, I found what I usually find when watching their cartoons: there's a lot to admire, and a lot to enjoy, but not a lot that I actually laugh at the way I laugh at the cartoons of Hanna and Barbera's MGM contemporary, Tex Avery. I find myself thinking, oh, Tom crashed through the floor, that's a good gag, good comic timing. But I haven't really laughed at it. And "The Cat Concerto" doesn't crack me up nearly as much as Friz Freleng's near-simultaneous cartoon based on exactly the same idea (no one really knows who came up with the idea first), "Rhapsody Rabbit."

I'm not sure that I can analyze my problem with Tom and Jerry, but I think it comes down to personalities. Tom and Jerry started as characters inspired by the archetypes of '30s cartoons -- the happy-go-lucky mouse, the devious cat -- and while they developed a lot from that point, I never find much personality in them. Jerry's often not much more than a cute little mouse with a happy personality; guest characters, like the tough mouse in "Jerry's Cousin" or the bird in "Kitty Foiled," have to take up the task of defining the approach to tackling Tom (and the guest characters are often rather weak), because Jerry doesn't really have his own approach, his own style. And Tom is the same way; in a lot of cartoons he comes off to me as just, generically, The Cat. So while the cartoons contain some extremely strong character animation by the likes of Irv Spence and Ray Patterson, I don't always get the sense that these are truly interesting characters, and without that, the appeal of one character smashing another character's teeth to pieces is somehow lessened. But I'm in a very minor minority here; Tom and Jerry were recently picked by a British poll as the best-known cartoon characters in the world, and their millions of fans around the world certainly don't think they're not interesting characters. And I will say that there are some Tom and Jerry cartoons I find very funny, including one that gets a commentary track on this set, "Kitty Foiled."

The selection of cartoons on this set, as you may have heard, is timid in the extreme; it includes 40 of the 117 or so Tom and Jerry cartoons, but not a single one with the unseen but forceful Mammy Two-Shoes ("THOMAS!! Get your head out o' that icebox, boy!!"). This isn't even about, as on the Looney Tunes sets, leaving out cartoons with blackface gags, since, as I recall, we never see Mammy's face; it's just an assumption that they'll get in trouble by including any representation of black characters in a collection of cartoons. An assumption that may, alas, be all too true. Jerry Beck, who does the commentary tracks on this set, has said that "The best is yet to come," so hopefully future collections will let Mammy out of the vaults. Interesting thing: "Kitty Foiled" includes a gag where Jerry poses as an American Indian, and even says "How." This gag is not cut -- all the cartoons on this set are uncut (edit: I spoke too soon: see below) -- but why exactly is stereotyping of Native Americans supposed to be so much less offensive?

Addendum: I regret to say that one of the cartoons, "The Little Orphan," is not uncut; the brief non-speaking appearance of Mammy Two-Shoes is there, but a blackface gag (involving Tom) is removed.

Anywho... don't expect the kind of restoration work that WB is doing on Looney Tunes. These prints don't appear to be taken from the original negatives, but then, since these are MGM cartoons that got sold to Ted Turner and then got picked up by WB in the Warner/Turner merger, it's possible that WB doesn't even have the original negatives, or even that they don't exist any more. The cartoons here don't have the same vibrant colors as the WB cartoons, and the prints have the usual assortment of flecks, specks, and that dot in the upper right hand corner at the end (a signal to the projectionist that it's time to change the reel). They look all right, but "all right" in the sense of being better than what you'd see on TV; it's not really up to the standards of the best DVD releases of old movies or cartoons.

Addendum: I just read elsewhere that, in fact, the original negatives do not exist; the negatives of the MGM cartoons were destroyed in a fire some years ago, so this is about as good as most of these cartoons are ever going to look.

The good news is that the special features are very good. The highlights are two new featurettes. One is on Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera and the origins and history of Tom and Jerry, from their debut in 1940 to the closing of the MGM cartoon studio in 1957. This lasts almost a half an hour, includes extensive interviews with Hanna and Barbera (shot on film, not videotape, giving the interviews a nice "vintage" look) as well as comments from animation experts Jerry Beck and Earl Kress. The other featurette, on disc 2, is a 17-minute feature on the music of Scott Bradley, composer for almost all of MGM's cartoons. This is no puff piece; it's mostly an analysis of Bradley's music and how it works within the cartoons, illustrated with many examples from the cartoons themselves. I wish WB would do something like this on the Looney Tunes sets for Carl Stalling.

So, if you love Tom and Jerry, this is well worth picking up, albeit with a prayer that someone at WB would finally stop being so terrified of Mammy Two-Shoes and Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarves and all that kind of thing (if they can release a special edition of Gone With the Wind...). If you don't love Tom and Jerry, it's still worth picking up at the low price. Also, if you don't love Tom and Jerry, you're like me. We're sick. We need help.

Writers With Bad Personalities

Are there great artists whose work you admire, but whose personalities turn you off so much that you can't enjoy their work? Now, when I say "personality," I'm not talking about what the artist was like in private life; I'm talking about the personality he or she projects in the art itself. Many artists have been complete creeps in real life, but, in their work, they somehow became generous, tolerant, and good-hearted. But sometimes the combined things that make up a literary personality -- the way the artist portrays his or her characters, the things he or she chooses to celebrate or condemn, the general attitude to life -- turn me off so much that I feel, when I read or see that person's work, that I'm in the presence of a very unpleasant person.

Again, this has nothing to do with the artist's non-literary personality. Jonathan Swift, in real life, obviously held many of the same opinions and attitudes that he expresses on the page, but he evidently could be quite likable if he wanted to be. But in his work, he comes off to me as horribly unpleasant, basing his work on attitudes that I find intolerant and almost anti-human: humans aren't only stupid to Swift, as they are to most satirists; Mark Twain was nasty too, but I get the feeling he hates human folly, not humans. But I always feel that Swift just plain hates people: hey're horrible, repulsive, brutish; bodily functions disgust him and the human mind disgusts him even more. Reading Gulliver's Travels is like listening to some guy tell you how much he wants to eliminate most of the human race and start over again with only the righteous.

Another writer whose literary personality turns me off, but for almost opposite reasons: Anthony Trollope. The Way We Live Now is in many ways a wonderful novel. But the personality and attitudes I detect in his work are, again, kind of a turnoff to me. Not a complete turnoff; Trollope is justly celebrated for being fair to his characters, able to present them sympathetically even when they're acting badly, able to portray women three-dimensionally, etc. But some of the time, what I see in Trollope is a smug, almost Podsnappian attitude to anything outside of his own world of city life, country squiredom, and political party politics. He's suspicious of anybody who exhibits strong passions, uninterested in other cultures (hence the business with the Emperor of China in The Way We Live Now, and the portrayal of the American Mrs. Hurtle, whose defining characteristics are that she's abominably passionate and likes guns too much), sniffy about other ethnicities, just generally not very concerned with things that are outside his narrow purview of how people ought to behave. Do I find this in other English novelists? Sure. Does it bother me as much? No. It's something about Trollope's personality, as a writer (again, this has nothing to do with what he did or said in private life), that makes me feel somehow that I'm in the presence of someone I don't really like that much.

Conversely, sometimes I'll wind up liking a writer's literary personality even though I'm supposed to dislike it. In college, we were practically ordered to hate Kipling, or at least say that while he could sort of write, he has unacceptable attitudes. But while some of his attitudes are a turn-off, he also has a genuine interest in and even love of other cultures and people outside of his own class and culture; an understanding of the limitations of his own culture and of its power; and just a real love of people. So when reading a good Kipling story, I feel I'm in the presence of someone who projects a personality that I can like and even admire. Though I don't know as I'd feel that way if he were agitating for the British to invade and occupy my country.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Good Is Better Than Evil, 'Cause It's Nicer

I haven't written an "obscure musicals" post in a while, but while I'm working on that, here's a link to a great essay on a non-obscure musical, Mark Evanier's piece on the Broadway musical version of Li'l Abner. He also has an essay on the movie version, which retained most of the original Broadway cast, and is probably the stagiest movie musical ever made: none of the numbers were re-thought for the screen, so everybody throws out their arms and stands in the middle of the "stage" as though they're still trying to project to the back of the theatre. I find the movie almost unwatchable because it's so static and stagy; if any project ever cried out for Frank Tashlin as director, this was it. Too bad Paramount didn't hire him instead of letting the Broadway personnel create a mummified version of the stage show.

The musical itself is a lot of fun but somehow less good than it ought to be, considering the source material and the excellent score. The authors, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank -- who also directed the movie version -- were veteran comedy writers of the joke-a-minute Bob Hope school, and they filled their script with one-liners and setup/punchline routines: most of the jokes work, but it definitely blunts the social and political satire of Al Capp's strip, and many admirers of the strip were disappointed (including the Daisy Mae, Edie Adams, who expected the show to be much more biting -- and her part to be much more important -- than it turned out). On the other hand, Capp's humor is largely based on an extreme sense of contempt; there's hardly a character he seems to like, because everyone in his world is either a moron like Abner or a venal creep like most of the city folk that Abner meets. So a show that faithfully captured the spirit of Al Capp would probably run about a week.

Finally, here's part of a song that was cut from the show, an Abner song called "It's a Nuisance Havin' You Around." It's a good example of the wonderful lyrical style that Johnny Mercer came up with for the show, fusing his trademark colloquial cleverness with a good approximation of the verbal style of Capp's strip:

It's a nuisance havin' you around,
But ah finds that when you ain't,
It's the usual complaint:
Ah'm as mizzuble as any man can be who ain't a gol-durn saint.
It's a nuisance havin' you so close,
But ah finds that when you go
Ah'm so ornery and low
Ah don't pass the time to folks who stop to pass the time and say "hello."
Although yo' peeves me,
Yo' changes the day to spring.
And when yo' leaves me,
All joy you obliterates.
Ah reiterates:
It's a nuisance havin' you around,
But ah finds when you're away,
It's a mighty gloomy day,
And the moment you return ah'm just as puffed-up as a popinjay.
You can stay.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Fluke is the Duke of Soul

I hope someday the cartoonist who bills himself as "Merlin Jones" will expand his multi-part The Rise and Fall of Disney Animation into a full-length book. Until then, the piece is a great read. Starting with The Little Mermaid, the Disney company seemed to have hit on a winning formula that would guarantee hit after hit -- and only four films and five years later, they had almost completely lost their way. It's an astonishing thing, and the essay is an object lesson in the fact that decisions in Hollywood often don't make commercial sense any more than they make artistic sense. The money-grubbing, bottom-line thing to do would have been to make more funny/touching fairy tales in the mold of Little Mermaid, or Bambi-style fables like The Lion King. Instead, as "Merlin Jones" tells it, producers who thought those stories were too "corny" pushed the films toward things they liked better: overblown musicals with politically-correct messages about tolerance (Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame). It's a moral that's not unique to this story: Hollywood executives care about making money and pleasing the audience, but they also care about prestige and awards and a reputation as forward-looking, progressive people. And that stuff can hurt a movie much more than crass commercial considerations.

Addendum: Remember, however, that "Merlin Jones"'s point of view is one among many; it's likely that Michael Eisner deserves somewhat more credit for Disney's resurgence than the recent kick-him-while-he's-down stories are willing to give him. (Just because someone runs a company into the ground doesn't mean he did nothing to help it in the past.)

One of the few non-cartoonists who comes off well in "Merlin Jones"'s telling is songwriter/writer/producer Howard Ashman, whose songwriting skill and whimsical sense of humor were essential to Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, and whose death from AIDS was a major, tragic factor in ending the short-lived Disney animation boom. One thing about Ashman is that while his work was routinely described as Broadway-style, it actually was kind of out of step with the musical theatre of the late '80s, when he came to Disney. The hits of that era were mostly big, serious, self-important shows like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. And the prestigious shows of the era were shows like Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods: musicals laden down with Big Themes about art and life and death. (Into the Woods, a musical deconstruction of fairy tales, tore down all the Disney-style stuff that Little Mermaid would soon help revive.) In coming to Disney, Ashman and Alan Menken not only helped revive the style of old-fashioned Disney features; they revived an old-fashioned style of musical theatre writing, with zippy, instantly-catchy songs, a sense of fun and whimsy, and eschewing Big Themes in favor of the kind of simple themes that make for good popular songwriting. When, after Ashman's death, Disney decided that they were the "new Broadway," they made Pocahontas and especially Hunchback as big, preachy musicals with songs in the vein of the late '80s hits -- the kind of Broadway that Mermaid had been rebelling against, and the antithesis of the kind of musical theatre that Ashman had been helping Disney to revive.

Another thing about Ashman's work for Disney -- and this is noted a couple of times on the Beauty and Aladdin DVD commentaries -- is that he filled his lyrics with references to specific physical things: objects, animals, actions. This is an important characteristic of good lyric-writing in general (good lyricists deal in specific images; bad lyricists deal in generalities and platitudes), but it was absolutely essential for a song in an animated movie, because without the physical images, there's nothing for the animators to animate, and everything stops while a song is going on. "Under the Sea" in Mermaid was a great number because it was such a fun song, but also because the lyrics contained copious visual cues, including the famous list of different types of fish and the instruments they're playing, that allowed the number to proceed as a combination of song and visuals.

Post-Ashman, Tim Rice did a decent if unexceptional job on finishing Aladdin and doing The Lion King, writing lyrics that weren't terribly specific but at least fit the onscreen action instead of slowing it down. But Stephen Schwartz, lyricist of Pocahontas and Hunchback, wrote technically-assured but generalized lyrics ("Colors of the Wind?" what's that about? multicolored smog?) that brought the action to a dead halt while somebody sang. After those two movies, you heard people complaining about all the pointless singing in Disney movies; you didn't hear it after Beauty or Aladdin, because the songs in those movies are so much a part of the action that you're often hardly aware of them as separate self-contained numbers. Does this mean that, in addition to blaming him for Godspell and Pippin, we can blame Stephen Schwartz for killing the animated musical? Probably not. But it's worth a try.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

What's Wrong With Bulwer-Lytton?

I haven't read much of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but even so, I know he's gotten a really bad rap. The supposed Bulwer-Lytton homepage is devoted to the once-funny, now deeply annoying "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest," a contest to see who can come up with the worst opening sentence. This concept also found its way into English composition courses; in one high school English class, we were asked to come up with the most over-written run-on sentence we could. I won by writing a sentence that was several hundred words long. But the thing is, that was hard work -- it's not easy to make a sentence seem overloaded, or toe keep a sentence going instead of breaking it up with a few periods. Writing a deliberately bad sentence takes all the fun out of bad writing, which is that bad writing is supposed to be writing that tries to be good and fails. Who really needs to see a bunch of deliberately silly sentences?

But back to Bulwer-Lytton, the thing that always struck me about the line that set off this bad-writing cult -- "It was a dark and stormy night" -- is that there's nothing wrong with it. It tells us that a) It was night; b) It was dark (nighttime isn't always dark, if there are lamps, or moonlight); c) There was a storm. The line is part of an opening sentence that, in the fashion of the time, is rather long:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

But I still don't see the problem with it; it's a long sentence, but it doesn't waste words: each word has a descriptive function and tells us something we need to know to picture the scene that's being described. And this analysis of the opening chapter of that novel, Paul Clifford, strikes me as pretty pedantic, like Mark Twain's nit-picking analysis of Fenimore Cooper, only not as clever.

B-W gets picked on, basically, because he was a successful Victorian-era novelist who didn't achieve the status of an all-time classic, which makes him a convenient target for everything the modern era didn't like about Victorian prose. As this page makes clear, there's often not a lot of difference between the prose of Bulwer-Lytton and the prose of Dickens. But Dickens is a classic, and his run-on sentences and tongue-twisting diction and weird grammar and syntax are not fair game in the way that they are in the prose of Bulwer-Lytton (a good and entertaining novelist, but not a great one).

The thing that irritates me about picking on this kind of prose writing is that it's based on an ideal of prose-writing, and particularly prose-writing in fiction, that I find very limited. Run-on sentences aren't allowed? But the long sentences in Victorian novels have a function; the sentences are not long just because the writer couldn't be bothered to put in a period or exclamation point, but rather, they are long because they carry the reader through the progression of the author's thoughts; particularly in descriptive passages, a long sentence conveys an unbroken picture of the scene, whereas a series of short sentences seems choppy and breaks up the description. The author uses highfalutin' phrases instead of saying the same thing in simpler terms? But if we all use the simple term to describe something, we'll be describing it in the same terms as someone else. The insistence of the prose-pedants, like Orwell, on "plain English" may be appropriate for non-fiction writing, but carried into fiction writing, it becomes a recipe for cookie-cutter prose and undescriptive descriptions. Instead of laughing at the over-ripeness of Victorian prose, maybe we could consider the possibility that post-Victorian prose isn't ripe enough?

Dictators, TV Characters, Same Diff

You've probably seen this before, but one of my favorite web games, and one of the few semi-early Internet staples to survive all these years, is Guess the Dictator or Sitcom Character. As with any database system, there are some flaws; some questions don't have clear answers (if you don't know the answer, I think you're supposed to just choose "no"). But in general, no matter what dictator/politician or sitcom character you have in mind, it will guess it. You can go hours trying to stump it on a constistent basis.

If I had to analyze the fun of it, I think it's that it proves that a) Politicians, whether they're evil dictators or not, appear to us very much like TV characters -- a collection of easily-identifiable, TV-worthy traits and catchphrases -- so grouping them together makes sense, and b) TV characters whom we thought of as generic, cookie-cutter creations turn out to have enough distinctive, unique characteristics that a computer database can distinguish between, say, Chrissy Snow and Kelly Bundy by asking a few simple questions.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Le Moron Stupide

Here's an excellent interview with Chris Lewis, son of Jerry Lewis, who produced the DVD editions of a bunch of Lewis's movies, to be released tomorrow.

Jokes about the French aside, I'll say this about Jerry Lewis: who else was consistently making interesting comedies in the early '60s? Billy Wilder, and Blake Edwards, and Lewis's mentor Frank Tashlin, and that's really about it. Most film comedies in America were visually mediocre and gave few opportunities to performers; even a promising comedy, like Lover Come Back (which has a terrific script -- one funny line after another), is sunk by being shot and lit like a bad sitcom. Meanwhile, most of the emerging foreign directors seemed to avoid pure comedy, perhaps because it requires the director to give up some of his autonomy to the performers; Ingmar Bergman (who made some comedies before 1960, but none after) and Fellini and most of the French New Wave guys weren't about to let a comedy performer run wild. Jerry Lewis's movies may be self-indulgent, and sentimental, and uneven, but they're full of good and innovative visual ideas, and they kept alive the great tradition of creating a comedy to show off a gifted performer's talents, rather than shoehorning a performer into a generic role.

That said, I prefer Tashlin as a director -- his famously cartoony gags, his cynical attitude to American pop culture, made him like no other Hollywood comedy director of the era. None of his films have previously been available on DVD, nor have any of his Warner Brothers cartoons come out yet, so it's especially good to see two Tashlin/Lewis films, Cinderfella and The Disorderly Orderly, included in this new batch. Neither of these are among Tashlin's best work, though Disorderly Orderly has a lot of good stuff; his best films, The Girl Can't Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Bachelor Flat, have yet to be released by Fox, and his best Paramount movies, like Son of Paleface and Artists and Models, remain in the vaults. (His two Martin/Lewis films, Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust, are truly insane; they take the basic format of a Dean-n-Jerry picture and go off on strange tangents with bizarre gags, pop-culture satires, and Tashlin's obsession with displaying his leading ladies in every glamour-magazine pose known to man or photographer.) But Chris Lewis says in the interview that the Martin/Lewis movies, as well as other Tashlin/Lewis films, will be coming soon if the current releases sell well, as I'm sure they will.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Do You Four Boys Take These Two Girls To Be Your Seven Brides?

I can recommend the new special-edition DVD of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, with the following caveats:

- The use of studio interiors for outdoor scenes is still a problem; I don't think musicals should be shot on location, but a lot of these sets just look distractingly fake, much like the sets in MGM's Brigadoon that same year;
- The transfer, while excellent, can't do much to improve the cheap Ansco Color process;
- The director, Stanley Donen, doesn't have a whole lot to say on the audio commentary track;
- I can't help feeling that the theme of this film -- kidnap women, they'll learn to like it -- would be a little horrifying by the standards of 1854, let alone 1954. Though to be fair, the sexual politics of the film aren't all bad, as the Howard Keel character starts out viewing women as interchangable, and winds up sort of appreciating his wife as an individual.

With that out of the way, it's an excellent DVD. They've included two separate versions of the film: the CinemaScope version, and a "flat" (1.85:1 aspect ratio) version shot simultaneously, for theatres without CinemaScope equipment. Much of the movie works better in the non-'Scope version; the MGM directors were struggling with the adjustment to the wide screen, which isn't really right for the kind of musicals MGM specialized in -- a love duet is a disaster in CinemaScope, what with the necessity to fill all that empty space on either side of the lovers -- and they compensated by bringing in the camera in too close, placing lots of people in the wide frame but at the expense of showing less of each person. The non-'Scope version gives us more of the kind of screen compositions we get in the classic MGM musicals. However, the most important and famous sequence in the film, the barn dance, was specifically designed for 'Scope, and it doesn't work as well in the non-'Scope version. I'm happy to have both versions, along with the commentary, a making-of, and a couple of MGM promotional shorts from around the time the movie was made (including one of those CinemaScope-demonstration films where we see a full orchestra filling the wide screen).

Seven Brides was probably the best film produced by MGM's B-list producer of musicals, Jack Cummings. His movies drew on most of the same actors, directors and technicians as the musicals of Arthur Freed, but he had less money to work with, and less of a sense of story and style than Freed; I don't think he had Freed's interest in making sure that the script scenes were as interesting as the musical numbers, or in encouraging the kind of visual flourishes that Freed did; directors like Donen and George Sidney tended to do wilder, more elaborate visuals for Freed than for Cummings. But a lot of Cummings' movies, like Three Little Words (a biopic of two obscure songwriters that manages to be better than any of MGM's biopics of famous songwriters) and Give a Girl a Break, are very solid, and he was certainly preferable to MGM's Joe Pasternak, a producer who had bigger budgets than Cummings but put those budgets to work making Mario Lanza musicals.

Seven Brides is most famous for its Michael Kidd choreography, which happened to be perfect for the new CinemaScope era -- replacing the two-character dances of the traditional MGM musical, which didn't work in 'Scope, with six and seven-character numbers that filled the wide screen. But it also benefits from having one of the best original scores written for an MGM musical. Donen mentions on the commentary track that Cummings originally wanted to use period songs for the movie; fortunately, they turned instead to Gene De Paul, a talented pop composer who had had a few hits here and there (his biggest hit, believe it or not, was called "Cow Cow Boogie"), and the great lyricist Johnny Mercer. The two would team up with Kidd a couple of years later for the hit Broadway show Li'l Abner. De Paul's catchy tunes and Mercer's almost superhumanly polished, well-crafted, and witty lyrics account for a lot of the movie's success. The next year, Donen would co-direct a musical for Arthur Freed, It's Always Fair Weather (due on DVD next year, so I'm told), that had a bigger budget than Seven Brides, a great cast, a good script -- but which is prevented from attaining classic status by the near-disastrous choice of composer (Andre Previn, proving for the first of many times that, talented musician though he is, he can't write a good tune). Musicals are about a lot of elements, but most of all, they're about songs and singing. Without good songs, a musical's in trouble even if everything else is right.

Oh, and the subject heading comes from the Monty Python Sketch about a stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as performed at a prep school.

Who Deconstructs the Deconstructionists?

I have to be careful in talking about the recently-departed Jacques Derrida, because, even after five years of University literature programs, I don't really understand what deconstructionism is. I suspect that a lot of deconstructionists don't either, since if you can understand their essays -- and that's a big "if" -- they often just straightforward socio-political polemics dressed up with big words; instead of the multiplicity of viewpoints that deconstructionism is theoretically supposed to be looking for, they impose a single viewpoint on the work, and on the era in which the work was written. And of course, most critics who claim to be getting beyond "Western metaphysics" really just turn out to be imposing another set of absolute values on the text. Better to admit that you're a prisoner of the assumptions of your own culture, whichever set of assumptions you happen to choose, than to pretend you've gotten away from them.

Still, insofar as I can understand Derrida, I like some of the ideas he promoted about reading, notably the idea that you can learn something interesting by taking the conventional wisdom about a text and, basically, looking at it from the opposite angle -- everybody thinks this is about A, so I'll reverse that and say it's about B. It's not necessarily much more than a bad case of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I-ism, but in the context of a University English program, where most discussion is based not on deconstructionist theories but on older, duller theories whereby cultural and biographical issues are everything (all of Kipling's writing must be evaluated in the light of the fact that Kipling Was An Imperialist and Imperialism Sucks), the nuttiness of it all can be entertaining. In that sense, deconstructionist theory is more fun to try out than it is to read.

In the year I spent doing a Master's in English lit (which has proved so very, very useful), one of the things I wrote was a "deconstructionist love song." It was never performed and wasn't supposed to be, since it was written as a joke, but here's what I can remember of the lyrics:

A thing can't mean what it seems to mean,
Say the theorists, and I agree.
So you can't mean what you seem to mean
When you seem to mean the world to me.
When you act mean, does it mean you're mean?
Did you mean to be mean from the start?
And do you mean what you say you mean
When you say what I mean to your heart?
I can read Derrida,
But now I need a
New method of deduction.
I'm becoming leery
Of Gallic the'ry;
You're too well-constructed to stand deconstruction.
So what comes next when I'm so perplexed
By the loveliest text I've seen?
The cultural knowledge I read to get
Won't give me the knowledge I need to get:
What do you mean? What do you mean? What do you mean?

Not Only Linus Can Quote the Bible

I haven't seen this Peanuts strip in quite some time. It's one of my favorites of the yearly football-kicking strips, which are sort of Schulz's equivalent of Road Runner cartoons -- a rigid formula, an ending that is known to us in advance, and the fun is in wondering how he's going to get us to that ending this year. By 1970, when this strip ran, Schulz had already sort of given up pretending that Lucy could plausibly trick Charlie Brown into trying again; instead he just keeps trying because, well, that's his fate.

Of the strips where Lucy actually tricks Charlie Brown into trying to kick the ball, my favorite, due to law-school indoctrination, is the strip where she gives him a "signed document" promising that she will not pull the ball away this year. "If you've got a signed document," Charlie Brown reasons, "you can't go wrong." Only in the last panel does Lucy point out: "Peculiar thing about this document -- it was never notarized."

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Post Notes

When I rented the first season of Magnum, P.I., the guy at the video store said: "Coolest theme song ever." I tried to bring up the coolness of Magnum's car, but he was mostly concerned with the coolness of the theme song. So you can imagine my surprise when I found that for the first few episodes of the first season, they didn't have that theme song. The original theme music, by Ian Freebairn-Smith, was a jazzy, bass-y thing, a throwback to the theme songs of detective shows of the '50s and '60s. You can see what the guy was thinking: it's about a private detective, therefore, I'll write private-detective music. But it doesn't work. It comes off as cheesy, and it doesn't psych you up to see the episode. I think part of the problem is that it places the emphasis on something that was never the show's strong suit: the detective stuff. Magnum, like a lot of good TV detective shows, wasn't really about finding out whodunnit; it was about a character, and how he reacts when routine cases lead him into dangerous situations. A good theme song needs to emphasize Magnum, whereas the original theme song calls too much attention to the P.I. part of the show.

Anyway, Freebairn-Smith and the show parted ways, and probably not amicably, since in a later episode, creator Donald Bellisario made a rather gruesome reference to his name:

HIGGINS: Agatha, did I ever tell you the story about Lieutenant Smythe?
AGATHA: Wasn't he the one who was eaten by a tiger?
HIGGINS: No, that was Lieutenant Freebairn-Smith.

And midway through the first season, we start to hear the new theme, by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, over the closing credits; and by episode twelve or so, it's established as the sole theme song. And once that song is played over the opening credits, suddenly the whole show seems to work better, because the theme puts us in the right frame of mind to see a Magnum story: instead of telling us that this is some cheesy private-eye show that happens to take place in Hawaii, it tells us that this is a show about a really cool and fun character.

One reason why Mike Post was such a good writer of TV theme songs in the '70s and '80s (his work in the last ten years or so hasn't been as good) is that he understood that successful TV shows are about characters, not situations, and that therefore a good theme song should introduce you to the characters. He once explained that his theme song for The A-Team was based on what he knew about the characters: they were fun-loving action heroes with a military style, so he created a jaunty military theme for the main melody; and they were Vietnam veterans, so he wrote an electric guitar solo, which is TV-music shorthand for "Vietnam flashback." One might argue that any show that includes Mr. T does not deserve to have even that much thought going into the creation of the theme song, but you have to admit, it works. Post and Carpenter's theme for a better Steve Cannell show, The Rockford Files, is basically a character portrait: the quirky melodies and orchestration signal that this is a show about a different, less conventionally heroic kind of hero.

And Magnum is the same way. The pulsating opening theme, the string tune that follows it, the electric guitar solo, all tell us to expect something from the main character (he's adventurous, he's romantic, he's a Vietnam vet) and from the show itself (a mixture of several different styles). Using pop tunes for the opening, as some shows do nowadays, or using some generic-sounding atmosphere-setting theme, just doesn't work as well as a theme that conveys what the show is about and who this show is about. Of course it helps that shows had fewer commercials in the '80s, which meant that they could and did devote a full minute or more to the main title, whereas today's shows, with their shorter running times, need shorter credits and shorter theme songs.

One other thing about re-watching Magnum is that it reminds me again that I have a soft spot for the work of Don Bellisario (creator of Magnum, Quantum Leap, Airwolf, JAG and many more). Not only is he one of the last producers of this kind of old-fashioned adventure-drama show, but he doesn't condescend to the format, and is frequently willing to surprise his audience by playing tricks with the formulas that the audience has been conditioned to expect. The ending of his Magnum episode "Echoes of the Mind" (included on the first DVD set as a bonus, though it's actually from the fifth season) is still one of the most surprising things I've seen on this kind of TV series, but it wouldn't be particularly surprising in an HBO show, let alone a novel. It's a surprise because we, the viewers, have come to expect a network TV action-adventure show episode to end a certain way, and the writer, Bellisario, takes advantage of that by going against our expectations. The events of this episode also carry over into the next week's episode ("Mac's Back"), which unfortunately isn't on DVD yet, but that's another little reversal of our expecations, since at the time that episode aired, shows like this never had any carryover from one episode to another.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Good Ol' Robert Browning

I notice that Stephen King has written a novel (what? Stephen King? writing a new novel? get out of here), the conclusion to a series called The Dark Tower taking inspiration from Robert Browning's poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. But he's no closer than the rest of us to knowing what the poem's about: "Browning's poem was like Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' - it came to him in a dream. He woke up, wrote the poem and people said to him 'What does it mean?' and he said 'I don't know.' I've read that poem many times over the years and I still don't know what it means."

Part of the fascination of Browning is that you can read many of his poems over and over again and still not really understand what they mean; since he almost never writes in his own voice, you can't always be sure whether the speaker is telling the truth at any particular moment in the poem. Sometimes Browning will throw in something to help us; Bishop Blougram's Apology takes us through the rationalizations and self-justifications of a Catholic priest who doesn't really believe in much of anything except living as comfortably as possible. At the end, Browning makes a rare authorial intrusion to tell us that "Blougram, he believed, say, half he spoke," and that "he said true things, but called them by wrong names" -- that is, Blougram says many things that Browning agrees with, but uses them in justification of an attitude that Browning doesn't agree with. Then we can go back and read Blougram's monologue again in light of what we've found out about him at the end -- but Browning never gives us even this kind of minimal explanation up front. And sometimes, as in "Childe Roland," he doesn't even give us anything to hold onto, any way of knowing what's going on outside the mind of the speaker.

In a way, Browning is the flip side of Longfellow, about whom I wrote a while back. Longfellow's "Excelsior" is a poem about a man who has to continue on a quest in spite of everything; so is Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." But "Excelsior," apart from not being a particularly good poem, is a public poem, designed to convey a message or a theme to the general reader, with words and sounds chosen for maximum clarity and effectiveness. Browning, who wasn't a particularly well-known poet for most of his career, doesn't care whether we know what message he's trying to convey, or indeed if he's conveying any message at all. And while he was a fine craftsman, he didn't usually seem to care whether a poem sounded good or not; in an era where the most famous poets were noted for mellifluous, beautiful-sounding poetry (Tennyson, Swinburne), Browning let sounds butt up against each other, engaged in some of the strangest trick rhymes in the English language, and created some lines that are positively tongue-twisting when you try to recite them. This is poetry meant to be re-read and puzzled over, rather than recited and loved (even if much of Browning's poetry eventually became loved anyway); for better or for worse, Browning pointed the way toward the twentieth century, where much of the best poetry would require footnotes and special introductions to make any sense. It's often been pointed out that T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is heavily influenced by Browning: a monologue by an unreliable narrator, full of obscure allusions and not-particularly-attractive diction.

One Browning monologue I'm currently trying to read through again is Mr. Sludge, "The Medium," one of his last great poems (a lot of the poetry of his later years is incomprehensible in a bad way, not a good way). Browning wanted to attack the kind of seance-holding huckster that his wife, Elizabeth Barrett, had been taken in by late in her life (the modern equivalent would be a Hollywood producer making a movie to attack his wife's conversion to Scientology). It's the essence of Browning that he'd do this by letting the huckster speak for himself and make the best possible case for himself; instead of just an easy hatchet job, the poem places Sludge in the context of a larger problem, that of a society that's lost its way -- Browning, like many Victorian poets, devoted a huge number of poems to the basic question of what a society does when it's entering a post-religious age -- and people who are looking for some semblance of spiritual guidance anywhere they can find it.

One more thing about "Childe Roland": while the story of the poem is hard to understand, the lines themselves and the words Browning uses are actually not that obscure, at least by Browning's own standards. When he let himself go in other poems, he could produce verses full of words and diction that would leave students scratching their heads, that is, if they taught these poems in school, and I'm not saying they should. Two examples. The first, from "Another Way of Love," is a verse that is used in the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street to denote what a strange poet Robert Browning is (when the curtain goes up on one scene, Elizabeth is reading this verse out loud and trying to figure out what it means):

And after, for pastime,
If June be refulgent
With flowers in completeness,
All petals, no prickles,
Delicious as trickles
Of wine poured at mass-time,---
And choose One indulgent
To redness and sweetness:
Or if, with experience of man and of spider,
June use my June-lightning, the strong insect-ridder,
And stop the fresh film-work,---why, June will consider.

Or how about this one, from a very late poem called "Flute-Music, With an Accompaniment":

That's an air of Tulou's
He maltreats persistent,
Till as lief I'd hear some Zulu's
Bone-piped bag, breath-distent,
Madden native dances.
I'm the man's familiar;
Unexpectedness enhances
What your ear's auxiliar
-- Fancy -- finds suggestive.
Listen! That's legato
Rightly played, his fingers restive
Touch as if staccato.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

More than 4077 Copies Sold

In a previous post I linked to an article on the impending release of The Mary Tyler Moore Show season 2, which was put on hold after the first season's sales disappointed the studio. The article also included statistics on how the first seasons of various "classic," or at least old, sitcoms have sold on DVD. This is for the first season only, not subsequent seasons:

TV show - release date - units sold

"M*A*S*H" (Fox, $39.98) - Jan. 8, 2002 - 550,000

"All in the Family" (Columbia TriStar, $39.95) - March 26, 2002 - 125,000

"Cheers" (Paramount, $49.99) - May 20, 2003 - 110,000

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" (Fox, $49.98) - Sept. 24, 2002 - 85,000

"Green Acres" (MGM, $29.98) - Jan. 13, 2004 - 80,000

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" (Image, $69.99) - Oct. 21, 2003 - 55,000

"The Monkees" (Rhino, $89.95) - May 13, 2003 - 31,000

Source: Video Store Magazine market research

As noted before, M*A*S*H's sales are pretty phenomenal, even adjusting for the low price point. TV shows don't sell on DVD at the level of movies, so most current shows, even the ones that sell well enough for continued releases, don't sell anything like 500,000 copies. Assuming that M*A*S*H's other seasons have sold at the same level, and the rule tends to be that all the seasons of a TV show sell at about the same level if they're all priced the same, then it must be one of the biggest-selling and most profitable shows in the short history of TV on DVD. I don't even like M*A*S*H all that much, even in the Larry Gelbart years; but you've got to admire it for maintaining that level of popularity 30 years after it started, and 20 years after it went off the air.

The biggest disappointment among these sets is probably Green Acres. Sold at a very low price, it sold less than the much higher-priced Mary Tyler Moore. I doubt we'll be seeing any more seasons of the show, which is a shame, because I'd like the chance to buy some of the episodes they did after they went completely insane (the episodes that prompted Dave Foley of Kids in the Hall to describe Green Acres as "one of the most tightly and imaginatively written shows ever done on television"). The Dick Van Dyke Show sold much less than that, but it was a higher-priced set, and done for an independent company with lower sales expectations than a big studio, so all five seasons made it out.